As a two-time Iraq War veteran who happens to be a public health professional and a Black man, the past few months have been equal parts inspiring and disorienting. I have been inspired by the protests, large and small, that demand that America live up to its promise of equality. Yet I have been dismayed by the president’s intentional actions to fan the flames of racism and white supremacy, mismanagement of the national response to COVID-19, and frequent politicization of the military.
Like many Americans, balancing my civic duty to be an informed citizen while avoiding the lies and propaganda that are pervasive throughout the executive branch has been challenging. I try to keep the big picture in mind to avoid being distracted by the chaos propagated by the White House. Despite my best efforts, there is one piece of recent news about the president of which I just can’t let go. It’s the reporting that the president didn’t want disabled veterans to participate in a parade, because “nobody wants to see that.”
Incidents of the president’s disrespect of the military, service members, and their families are too numerous to count. Some of his most disgraceful remarks disparaged POWs, Gold Star families, and those who choose to serve in uniform. But the “nobody wants to see that” comment is particularly disturbing because it demonstrates a degree of cascading ignorance that is rare even for this president. While a military parade in the style of authoritarian dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jung Un is strangely dystopian, the idea that disabled veterans are an eyesore offers us all a glimpse into Trump’s depraved thinking and ignorance.
It’s important to remember that wounded veterans often have injuries that are invisible at first glance. Credible estimates indicate that as many as 30% of Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans live with mental health conditions, yet less than half actually receive treatment. As startling as this statistic is, it doesn’t account for the full impact that military service can have on families and communities. I have witnessed firsthand the toll that multiple deployments have on military families. These include missed birthdays and graduations, strained relationships, and divorce. These sacrifices are not fodder for political hay, they are part of the full cost of war.
Treating our veterans with dignity and respect must be paramount. It’s my hope that when Americans encounter a disabled veteran, that they first and foremost experience compassion and reverence. It’s also understandable if someone experiences a modicum of discomfort. As a senator’s aide in the early 2010s, I attended dozens of service member funerals – at each I experienced a range of emotions. Sometimes utter grief at a life lost, sometimes inspiration from the acts of heroism in the final moments of the service member’s life, and sometimes discomfort with the realization that family would be left to continue on to pick up the pieces left by death.
This discomfort is not an eyesore, it’s a reminder that decisions made on behalf of the American people to protect the common defense bear huge implications for the lives of our heroic service members. The discomfort is a reminder that we must approach each of these decisions with gravity and thoughtfulness that the use of military force warrants. Service members and veterans deserve a president who understands the full costs of service, and Trump is and will never be that.